Monday, November 06, 2006

Recalling Nevada's Oddest Pipedreams

Goldfield School

It should probably come as no surprise that in a state built by dreamers—in the early days it was miners and more recently, gamblers—some amazing and outrageous proposals have cropped up over the years.

Some, like Adolph Sutro’s dream of building a four-mile-long tunnel underneath Virginia City to drain hot water from its mines or the 1,149-foot Stratosphere Tower in Las Vegas, were actually constructed. Others, however, proved to be more illusory.

For instance, in the early 20th century, the president of the Lake Tahoe and San Francisco Water Works, A.W. Von Schmidt, suggested constructing a massive pipeline from Lake Tahoe could solve San Francisco’s water woes.

Author David W. Toll writes that Von Schmidt’s $17 million plan would deliver thirty million gallons of Tahoe water per day—and he was even willing to deliver as much as a hundred million gallons per day for the right price.

Apparently, the idea had sufficient legs that the San Francisco Board of Supervisors visited the proposed site of his diversion dam on the Truckee River before letting the proposal fade away.

Tahoe’s water, however, cast a strong spell on San Francisco. Toll notes that three years later a San Francisco attorney named Waymire wanted to drill a tunnel through the side of the Tahoe Basin to drain lake water into the Rubicon branch of the American River, which would be routed to the city.

Of course, the idea of draining Lake Tahoe wasn’t purely a Golden State notion. Sometime in the 19th century, there was a proposal to drill a tunnel from Washoe Valley to a point deep below Lake Tahoe so that water could be diverted to Virginia City and other parts of Northern Nevada.

More recently, many of the more noteworthy flights of developmental fancy have involved various hotel-casino related projects that never reached fruition. In the 1960s, Reno resort owner William Harrah purchased a huge tract of land along Interstate 80 near Verdi and began planning to build a giant, indoor theme park.

The project, known as Harrah’s World, called for a massive dome over the park, so that it could be used year-round, and included acres of museum space for his famous car collection as well as amusement park rides, a train and, of course, a hotel-casino.

Harrah died before he could begin construction and the project was abandoned.
In rural Nevada, perhaps the most ambitious resort development was an effort in the 1980s to restore the historic Goldfield Hotel, which opened in 1908. A San Francisco developer spent millions to renovate the structure that had been abandoned since about the 1960s.

He also bought up other historic structures in the community, including the Goldfield High School, and announced plans to transform Goldfield into a kind of 19th century mining town version of Williamsburg, with residents dressed in period costumes.

Sadly, his vision proved bigger than his checkbook and, after sinking a considerable amount of money into the project, he ran short of funds. A couple of years later, the hotel was auctioned by the county for unpaid back taxes.

A rural project that never made it past the blueprint stage was a plan in the early 1990s to construct a Science and Technology Museum in Nye County, near Amargosa.

The idea was to take money that the federal government was going to give to the county in exchange for building a national nuclear waste dump and sink it into a large science museum in the desert. A scale model was produced of the project—I know because I saw it—but the funding never materialized and it was never built.

One of the most controversial projects that never happened was the MX Missile system, an ambitious proposal to construct hundreds of miles of subterranean railroad tracks throughout Central Nevada.

Missile launchers on trains would scurry around on the tracks, never staying in one place too long. In the event of a confrontation between the U.S. and Russia, the missiles could be routed to convenient launching sites and fired.

Fortunately, the Cold War began to thaw before it could be built.

Not surprisingly, Las Vegas has had its share of unorthodox proposals. In the early 1990s, Las Vegas officials were searching for ways to boost the fortunes of the city’s aging downtown core.

One of the more creative solutions came from several downtown casino owners who proposed replacing downtown streets with a series of water canals. Boat rides on “Las Venice,” as some called it, would attract tourists and the canals would be lined with trendy shops and restaurants, in addition to the hotel-casinos.

Water for the canals would come from a layer of unused but polluted water that sits underneath the downtown. The concept called for the water to be cleaned up and recycled for use in the canals.

Writing about the plan years later, Las Vegas journalist Geoff Schumacher noted that the idea “gained some momentum until somebody mentioned that tourists might end up watching homeless men bathing in the trickling Venetian waters.”

Schumacher said another plan under consideration at the time was to construct downtown a full-size replica of the Starship Enterprise from the “Star Trek” TV show. The vessel would be 23 stories high and 600 feet long and would include a thrill ride, restaurants and convention facilities.

Over the years, there have been a number of unusual Las Vegas resort concepts that never were constructed. In the 1990s, casino owner Bob Stupak, who built the Stratosphere, announced he was going to erect a hotel that would be a full-size replica of the Titanic that would sink nightly.

More recently, a Las Vegas Strip mall announced it was going to build a 22,000 square foot fake Grand Canyon. This faux natural wonder would have theatrical special effects like flash floods and thunderstorms, and visitors could take a ride on a simulated helicopter over the canyon.

But, like so many of these other grand schemes, it dispersed into the fog of ideas whose time never quite came.

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